Pennsylvania Dram Shop Laws Need More Teeth

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

Many businesses that interact with the public voluntarily carry liability insurance – because sometimes, to paraphrase a certain popular phrase, stuff happens. When it does, it’s nice to have an insurance company’s backing to cover the costs. Of course, there are some situations where the increased risk of something going wrong makes carrying liability insurance mandatory. You’re probably familiar with some of them. As everyone who operates a motor vehicle in Pennsylvania knows, state law requires all drivers to carry liability insurance to help cover the costs of damage and injuries in the event of an accident. (That law doesn’t require nearly enough liability insurance, but that’s another blog post.) Doctors and hospitals are required to carry medical malpractice insurance in Pennsylvania to help ensure that patients are compensated fairly for errors during medical treatment. Dentists in Pennsylvania are now required to carry liability insurance for similar reasons. Given those examples, we continue to be baffled that Pennsylvania does not require bars, taverns, restaurants, and other facilities that serve liquor to carry liability insurance of their own. Consider these statistics: According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, in 2014 alone, there were 333 drunk driving deaths resulting from 10,550 alcohol-related crashes in Pennsylvania. That’s an average of 29 alcohol-related crashes in the state every single day. The death rate from drunk driving in Pennsylvania is almost twice that of either New Jersey or New York. Pennsylvania’s “dram shop laws,” as they are known, govern every single establishment that serves liquor to guests. They provide both civil and criminal penalties for any liquor license holder whose establishment serves a visibly intoxicated patron or known habitual drunk. Without liability insurance requirements, however, the state’s dram shop law doesn’t have much bite. In one recent case, a client of ours (and a decorated veteran of our armed forces) was driving home from his job as a prison guard. A driver who had spent the previous several hours getting heavily intoxicated at his favorite dive bar also was on his way home, in the other direction. He hit our client head-on. Our client sustained permanent injuries that will incapacitate him for life. We identified the bar where the other driver had gotten drunk. It was clearly a liable party in the accident. Both the bar and its liquor license were owned by a corporation that had been formed specifically to operate the establishment. It had no liability insurance and owned no other assets, rendering it almost completely incapable of bearing financial responsibility for its decision to facilitate a drunk driver. This is wrong. We call on Pennsylvania’s state senators and representatives to introduce legislation that puts teeth into our state’s existing dram laws. Taverns, restaurants with bars, wineries with tasting rooms, and any other place that serves alcohol to potential motorists must be required to insure itself against liability. Operating a drinking establishment is at least as risky a business as getting behind the wheel of your own vehicle. We all have to carry liability insurance to drive to the grocery store. Shouldn’t businesses that could put drunk drivers on our roads have to do the same? In the meantime, if you or someone you love has been injured by a drunk driver, call the Scranton car accident attorneys of Scartelli Olszewski, P.C. today at 877.353.0529 to discuss your options.